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The Shop: West, West, Y’all

Jabari Davis and Lang Greene break down the Western Conference in this edition of The Shop.

Jabari Davis

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Alright Lang, let’s jump back into The Shop mix again this week with a look at the start a few teams have experienced now that we’re a couple weeks in. We’ll kick things off with the Los Angeles Lakers, as they are currently 4-4 and already playing much better than some might have anticipated. As always, young teams will have ups and downs, and that loss to the short-handed Mavericks is a perfect example of why Coach Luke Walton reminded the players and the media to maintain proper perspective when it comes to expectations of this group.

Julius Randle looks better on both ends and more comfortable facing the basket. The extra conditioning and attention to detail/scheme have made the difference on the defensive end. Jordan Clarkson has also improved on both ends, but what is most promising is that he realizes he still has so much more room to improve.

To be honest, outside of Luol Deng looking like he’s running around in ski boots out there (yes, I know he contributes in ways beyond even the box score), it really has been a pleasant surprise across the board for these guys. Obviously, there’s still a ton of room for continued development with this group, but part of me feels like that transition period may only be a year or two… rather than the three-to-four year process most were projecting over the summer.

Lang: The Lakers have been a pleasant surprise for sure. What has been crazy is watching the Lakers become a team people are actually rooting for to succeed! Los Angeles is always a polarizing squad because of all of the old star power … Magic, Kareem, Shaq, Kobe and on and on. But now, this is a scrappy young bunch that we’re witnessing grind on the fly. This is what makes the Lakers a bit more fun for the masses to root for because people respect the grind.

You touched on all of the floor mechanics so I won’t repeat a lot of that, but Luke Walton appears to be the perfect guy for the job. He is giving a nice balance between throwing his guys out to the fire and handcuffing them when needed. Good job early season for young Luke.

Let me touch on Luol for a second. When Father Time comes, he comes quick and unexpected sometimes. Luol looks a bit past it early on, but who knows, he could be playing through some stuff they’re not clueing us in on. That happens occasionally. But I will say this: the veteran additions of Luol and Timofey Mozgov have helped create a more competitive and accountable atmosphere. I also like the fact veterans Lou Williams and Metta World Peace are still around. Veterans are needed for any young core to develop.

Jabari: It wouldn’t shock me to hear Deng’s still working his way through that bruised left knee that he suffered during the preseason. Perhaps more than anything with aging players, the recovery time for injuries and ailments seems to extend. While he’s reportedly contributing in other ways, which as you mentioned are always important for a young team, I’m hoping his body is right at some point so they can also get whatever on-court contributions he has left in the tank on the front end of that deal.

I’ll say this about Lou… I didn’t take into account the tumultuous nature of last year’s squad when judging his play. Needless to say, even though I was less than impressed with his first year, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by just how well he’s fitting into Luke’s system and preferred basketball style. The buy-in has been phenomenal by this group, so kudos are definitely due for the coaching staff  (and players) at this stage.

Lang: Now let me transition to a squad folks were really high on – and again, we’re very early – but they haven’t lived up to the hype. Yeah, I’m talking about the Minnesota Timberwolves. The team is currently 2-5 and sitting 13th in the Western Conference, my man. Now, I am fully aware that they’re only two games out if the playoffs were to begin today but I am having a hard time seeing what so many people we respect see in this unit. I think I saw a 48-win projection for this team before training camp.

I think Karl-Anthony Towns is a certified goodie monster, but it takes time to start winning in the NBA. Just look at the struggles Anthony Davis is having in New Orleans. Different situations, sure, but Minnesota missed the boat by not investing in veteran leadership this summer – like the Lakers did. Brandon Rush is their most experienced player. Think about that. Jordan Hill and John Lucas III are the next most experienced. What wars have those guys been through? Any former All-Star selections? No? Any guys who made a run at Sixth Man of the Year? No? Rush does have a ring, but he was a bit player on the floor (although a strong part of Golden State’s chemistry).

What am I missing about this Minny team and do you think they will make a playoff run?    

Davis: You’re exactly right about their lack of experience, and perhaps those of us that were so eager to anoint them should have taken that into consideration a bit more. As one of the individuals that saw them as a playoff team heading in (not quite 48 wins, but low-to-mid 40s), I am not entirely surprised to see it taking a bit of time. The big difference between Davis’ situation in New Orleans and Towns’ in Minnesota is that the Timberwolves have some firepower to work with surrounding him. No disrespect to any of those dudes working their tails off in New Orleans, but if you were drafting from those two teams alone, you might take Ant with the first pick, but the next six or seven would likely come from Minnesota’s roster.

I figured after a slow start, they’d be a second-half team the way that Utah group was a couple years back. Of course, that is all contingent upon whether Thibs can keep them playing at a high enough level over the first 35-40 games to stay within reach of the conversation. I feel like Zach LaVine and Andrew Wiggins have already shown some of that improvement, but obviously have room to go. Kris Dunn’s development could also play a key role in any post-February push, but it has admittedly been a bit slow for him in the early going. We’ll see if they are able to put it together over the next 25 or so games, but as long as they stay within reach of that 8-10 range, I won’t jump overboard just yet. I do think some veteran contributors (not just there for a presence) would help their cause at some point.

Let’s keep it in the Western Conference and talk about the fast start of the L.A. Clippers and whether it is sustainable. I definitely think they can stay in the mix for a top-three record (finishing anywhere from one to three depending on how things shake out for each team), but just hope they can remain healthy or can at least BE healthy by the time the postseason comes around.

They’re a top-10 team in terms of offensive efficiency and they’re actually leading the league in opponent shooting percentage as they are holding opponents to just 39.6 percent shooting. They’re also holding teams to just 88.3 point per contest, which is better than seven points less than the second-place Utah Jazz (95.4). So, are you on the train?

Lang: I am on the record saying that the Clippers should finish second in the West this season. In my view, it is now or never for the core group of Blake Griffin, Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan and Doc Rivers to make a Western Conference Finals run. Time is ticking and we already know how volatile their locker can become if things turn for the worse.

As great as Chris Paul is bro, he’s never reached the Western Conference Finals… and he entered the league in 2005!

I think San Antonio will be in the mix, but something tells me the Clippers edge the Spurs for the number two slot. They have a great floor general, one of the best power forwards in the game and a top-tier rebounder. What they are missing is a small forward who can give them a legit 30 minutes a night. That’s the key. The Clippers play a lot of committee ball at the three, but come playoff time with lunch money snatchers Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard at small forward they’ll need someone who can bring the heat. A guy like Jae Crowder or Trevor Ariza is what this team is missing, man. But Boston and Houston aren’t giving those two dudes up … not by a longshot, so I think the Clippers have to work the trade market aggressively.

Well, I’ll keep this in the West since you have imposed your will on The Shop this week and made this a West Coast edition; what would you do with DeMarcus Cousins? If I’m Sacramento, I am doing everything in my power to make things right with the big man. You can make the argument that he’s the best center in the game. The numbers are ridiculous and after talking with numerous people around the team since he entered the league, the man has matured. But everyone doesn’t handle the losing the same way. It’s obvious that Boogie is one of those guys. But Sacramento’s drafting philosophy has been… let’s be honest … crappy. I know their front office works hard, but the moves haven’t panned out. Ben McLemore, Willie Cauley-Stein, Thomas Robinson, Nik Stauskas and Ray McCallum leave plenty to be desired.

Two of the studs they drafted – Isaiah Thomas and Hassan Whiteside – are balling elsewhere and are damn near MAX players. Could you imagine an Isaiah Thomas, Boogie and Hassan Whiteside core right now? And I know the Isaiah and Boogie dynamic needed work and Hassan was a bit immature at the time… but are you telling me no one in the organization looked at I.T. and Hassan and said let’s do everything in our power to develop these guys? If not, that’s part of the problem in Sac-Town even though Boogie will ultimately become the scapegoat.

Jabari: I wanted to be able to put some of that off to simply being the “previous regime” but I looked it up and Vlade Divac was already in place when it came time to figure things out with Thomas (averaging 25.7 PPG, 7.1 APG for Boston this year). Whiteside, on the other hand, was toward the end of the Petrie years that preceded the D’Alessandro seasons… so I can’t fault this current ownership and front office group for that one. At 4-5 on the year, I hope things continue to go well for this current group. I remarked before the season that as Cousins enters what appears to be the prime of his career (25.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 1.1 BPG and 48.4/78.4 percent from the floor/line in ‘16-17), it is about time for the Kings to finally be able to cash in on having one of the league’s top 10-15 players.

They were a little better (33-49) than some may have noticed last season, and optimism was about as high as it has been in a decade with Coach Dave Joerger hopefully bringing a bit of stability to a bench that has been a total revolving door. Obviously, it’s way too early to have playoff conversations when you are only about a 10th of the way through the regular season, but with the Western Conference being a bit more open in terms of the bottom half of the playoff bracket, they can probably stay in that mix by maintaining a .500 record.

I still don’t quite understand what they are doing with that roster, but will say they appear to have some options or potential assets that could be moved in order to solidify things for a second-half push if they are within reach. I realize all of this sounds like an awful lot of optimism for an organization that hasn’t given a ton of reason to have such high hopes, but I still think they have a chance to keep things together.

Alright, folks, we’ll end things at this point for this week, but remember to use #TheShop hashtag on Twitter (@JabariDavisNBA and @LangGreene) in order to continue contributing to our weekly discussion.

Jabari Davis is a senior NBA Writer and Columnist for Basketball Insiders, covering the Pacific Division and NBA Social Media activity.

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NBA Daily: Ranking The Shooting Guards

Ben Nadeau kicks off a set of April rankings by tackling the shooting guards. Can anybody take James Harden down?

Ben Nadeau

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It’s April and, let’s face it, the world is starved for basketball-related content.

Less than a week ago, this space included the admittance of imaginary one-on-one rules and a wholehearted recommendation for a video game tournament. Literally, seriously, honestly: Anything to scratch that itch. And speaking of the aforementioned itches, it must be poison ivy season because the content rash is calling out once more – this time in the form of rankings lists. Generally speaking, these are often relegated into calendars during the sweaty days of August – perhaps even September should the mood feel right – but in April? That’s borderline unheard of.

On this list of shooting guards, there is an MVP, many All-Stars, some freakishly-good scorers and, in all likelihood, a fair share of future Hall of Famers. Putting them in order after 60-plus games of basketball feels a tad bit underwhelming – and you’ve probably got your own unshakable opinions at this point of the year – so we’re ranking them with three extra criteria in mind:

A. The best fun fact on their Wikipedia page
B. By facial hair
C. Is their coolest nickname objectively cool?

With that said, and on a 1-to-10 scale, it’s time to dive in and chat about the NBA’s very best shooting guards, their top achievements and whether or not they’ve known Nelly for 20 years.

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

In any true-to-the-genre ranking, James Harden would be the undisputed champion because of his other-worldly scoring ability, playmaking chops and influence on the game of basketball as a whole. Back in 2017-18, Harden took home a well-deserved MVP award by notching 30.4 points per game and somehow followed that up with 36.1 during the next season and didn’t win – thus launching a widely-casted net on narratives and whether or not the NBA media succumbs to them.

Aside from leading the league in points per game for three consecutive seasons, Harden has also done so in assists once as well (11.2, 2016-17) and hasn’t missed an All-Star Game in almost a decade.

Before the season began, ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry reported that Harden, 30, is already the NBA’s all-time leader in unassisted three-pointers, a downright insane footnote, and, of course, there’s the 30-plus points streak over 32 consecutive games in 2018-19. By Harden’s standards – which, in case you’re living under a rock, are now firmly in the best-shooting-guard-of-all-time territory – this shortened campaign fell on the slightly disappointing side but no Western Conference team wanted to face him in the postseason.

On the fun fact front, Harden became the first player in NBA history to score 30 or more points against all 29 teams in a single season – a list that topped out with two 60-point efforts for good measure. Without much discussion either, Harden’s facial hair is marketable, recognizable and the face, literally, of a candy spin-off – the beard is untouchable magic.

WFF: 8 | FH: 10 | COOL: 7
TOTAL: 25

2. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

Bradley Beal is a bad dude… but if an All-Star shooting guard averages 30 points per game in Washington, does anybody hear it? Snubbed from the big midseason exhibition, Beal has toiled away with the Wizards and continued to grow exponentially in each passing season. At 30.5 points per game, Beal only trails Harden in that category and, of note, doesn’t have a Hall of Fame-worthy partner in Russell Westbrook to pry away the constant defensive pressure either. Cooler, the 26-year-old sharpshooter was coming in hot toward the top 50 for most made three-pointers in NBA history (60 away) and has shown zero signs of slowing down.

Thanks to Beal’s daily heroics, Washington found themselves in 9th place for the Eastern Conference – 24-40, sure, but 9th nonetheless – a consideration made even more notable by noting the Wizards’ fourth- and fifth-highest scoring leaders on the year: Jordan McRae, who was moved at the trade deadline, and Isaiah Thomas, who was moved at the trade deadline. If not for Harden, a historic, one-of-a-kind player, Beal would lay serious claim to the league’s best shooting guard title. And although his facial hair is nothing to write home about, Beal’s Wikipedia Factoid is.

Nelly – yes, that Nelly – used to walk Beal to school. Of the nicknames listed for Beal on Basketball Reference, it’s quite the smattering: Real Deal, Big Panda, Blue Magic, Brad. While the latter bunch doesn’t bring much to the table, Real Deal, then often followed by Beal, is a quality nickname. Who doesn’t love a good rhyme? Real Deal Beal, nearly nickname bliss.

WFF: 10 | FH: 4 | COOL: 8
TOTAL: 22

3. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

Year after year, Paul George continues to be one of the NBA’s most consistently underrated. Despite top-three finishes in both MVP and DPotY in 2018-19, George is hardly ever mentioned in the same breath as LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Still, that hasn’t stopped George from crushing opponents on either side of the ball – a reliable, healthy leader since he began to ascend the league-wide rankings in 2013. Teamed up with Leonard, George and the Clippers were poised for big things and a potential L.A.-L.A conference finals looked tastier than almost any other playoff series out there.

George has averaged over 20 points in six consecutive seasons – barring the year that must-not-be-named – and led the league in steals (2.2) last year. Back in 2013, George recorded his first-ever career playoff triple-double – 23 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists – and it was Indiana’s first since Mark Jackson notched one during the 1998 postseason. It’s not exactly the Most Fun of all Fun Facts – yet, being the first to do something since an NBA legend did it is undeniably cool.

The PG-13 moniker may sell jerseys and tickets, but not my heart. Clever, sure, but inspirational? Deadly? Fear-inspiring? That’s a question better suited for every underwhelming PG-13 horror movie out there – but for a future Hall of Famer, however, it could be better.

WFF: 7 | FH: 7 | COOL: 7
TOTAL: 21

4. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans

Like George, Holiday remains in the running for the basketball’s most underappreciated title. Dependable and heady, New Orleans’ long-term leader has reached back-to-back All-NBA Defensive Teams, opted to stay post-Anthony Davis and, at the age of 29, is having another career-year. At 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game, the stat-stuffing Holiday is an on-ball menace, while pairing excellently with Lonzo Ball thus far. Although the addition of Zion Williamson, complete with a late-season surge, may not ultimately find its own conclusion, Holiday’s veteran presence and timely contributions steered the ship until the generational talent could make his debut.

One might mistakenly believe that Holiday’s fun fact would involve his brothers – Justin and Aaron – and that the trio shared the court in late December, the first time in NBA history, but that’d be incorrect. Instead, Holiday is married to the USWNT’s Lauren Holiday, formerly Cheney, and the two met at a UCLA game in 2013 – when Lauren accidentally mistook him for Darren Collison. The rest, eventually, was history. Since Holiday broke into the team in 2007, the USWNT has won two Olympic gold medals, took silver in the 2011 Women’s World Cup and then, of course, got revenge with a first-place finish four years later.

Their daughter, Jrue as well, has some seriously-tight shoes to fill down the road.

WFF: 10 | FH: 4 | COOL: 5
TOTAL: 19

5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Booker is part of the generation’s new school: Icy cool from the arc, but even cooler off-the-court. The Suns’ franchise cornerstone appears to only be scratching the surface of his true potential lately, but the 23-year-old finally reached his first-ever All-Star Game before the shutdown. His elite scoring ability makes Booker a nightmare for opposing defenses and it’s legitimately exciting to imagine a playoff-ready roster around the playmaker. Three years earlier, Booker hung 70 points on the Boston Celtics on the road, becoming the youngest player ever to score 60-plus, and quickly smashed many other age-related records in his path as well.

To wit, Booker is already signed up on a maximum contract worth $158 million with Phoenix and was on course to repeat his incredible 2018-19 – 26 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists per game – but on even better efficiencies.

Admittedly, Book is not the greatest nickname, nor does his facial hair strike fear into the opponent’s heart… but his icebreaker contribution certainly would. Back on Jan. 2, 2016, when Booker was just 19 years old, he scored 21 points in a loss to the Sacramento Kings. For a superstar that now regularly drops 40, half that as a rookie seems skippable at first sight. But the only people to score more than that at his age: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Kevin Durant – all bonafide locks for the Hall of Fame.

Not bad company, not at all.

WFF: 9 | FH: 3 | COOL: 5
TOTAL: 17

6. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

After going at No. 13 overall three years ago, Mitchell continues to take the NBA scene by storm. Mitchell, a cool, calm and collected rim-rattler, was the franchise cornerstone that Utah so desperately needed to fall into their laps. Although their campaign hadn’t gone exactly to plan so far in 2019-20, Mitchell was having a career-year with 24.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. A fierce competitor, the 23-year-old is often ready to tear down the hoop with every electric dunk or go-ahead bucket. Always ready to attack the paint, Mitchell’s rapid-fire footwork and above-average jump shot keep defenders guessing .- and generally to no avail.

Best, of all, Mitchell may be young, but he, without a doubt, sports the best nickname of the shooting guard bunch – Spida – and these days, the first-time All-Star seems destined for greatness. Likewise, in 2018, Mitchell revealed that he was at LeBron James’ famous Boys and Girls Club ceremony. Mitchell, he says, wanted James to head to Miami and get his first championship ring. A decade later, he’s not only competing on the same level as James – but Mitchell is absolutely holding his own.

WFF: 5 | FH: 2 | COOL: 10 
TOTAL: 17

7. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

Every superhero needs a sidekick.

And, sure, maybe McCollum isn’t as prolific as Damian Lillard, but this is a deadeye marksman that puts the shooting in shooting guard. At 22.5 points per game, McCollum was nearing a career-high in that category, playing his part to keep the Trail Blazers in a tight postseason picture in spite of vast roster injuries. In fact, the 28-year-old had knocked down three or more three-pointers in 34 of Portland’s 62 games thus far, providing half the firepower in one of the NBA’s most dynamic backcourt partnerships.

Via Lehigh, McCollum took the road less traveled to the NBA, even opting to return to college for his senior year – even though he already ranked high on most draft boards. Noting his passion for Journalism and Sports Broadcasting, two facets of McCollum’s off-the-court persona today, the three-point destroyer stayed in school when 99 percent of the world would’ve taken the money. Oh, if that wasn’t enough, dropping 50 points – joining Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, Clyde Drexler, Damon Stoudamire, Geoff Petrie and Lillard in Blazers’ franchise history to do so – isn’t a minor accomplishment either. While McCollum is docked for having no remarkable nickname but makes up for it with an often fantastic mustache and goatee combo and his love for learning – both on and off the court.

WFF: 9 | FH: 5 | COOL: 1
TOTAL: 15

8. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

Although the campaign was halted before Oladipo could truly shake off the rust, the warning signs were certainly there: The All-Star guard was back, baby.

After a gruesome injury ended Oladipo’s rise into stardom over a year ago, questions of his eventual return – and if he’d even be the same player again – remained and lingered ominously on the surface. Thankfully, the 6-foot-4 bucket-scoring machine had the Pacers looking like a fearful postseason matchup as the calendar turned to March. During Indiana’s final game pre-quarantine, he dropped 27 points on 5-for-7 from three-point range – Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, it doesn’t matter: Nobody wants to go toe-to-toe with a hungry (and healthy) Oladipo.

To round out our foray into fun facts, unsurprisingly, Oladipo has already managed to reach mainstream recognition as a singer, his passionate side hustle. In 2018, the 27-year-old released his first-ever album, V.O., and has been featured at the NBA All-Star Game and on The Masked Singer – so if this whole basketball thing doesn’t work out, Dipo will be juuuuuuuuust fine.

WFF: 7 | FH: 1 | COOL: 6
TOTAL: 14

Honorable Mentions: Caris LeVert, Jaylen Brown, Gary Harris, Buddy Hield

In the end, the new-fangled criteria didn’t change too much on the sliding scale, but Harden’s greatness was too powerful to ignore. While Beal, George and others may lay claim to the throne, the shooting guard position brings a ton of confidence and consistency to the sport – top to bottom, it’s a list of absolute competitors and tide-changing athletes. It remains to be seen if this season will resume safely and effectively at some point, but, if it does, these eight sharpshooters can pull their weight (and then some) in a big way.

For more quarantine-ready content, stay tuned to Basketball Insiders’ feed, we’ve got you covered.

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Results-Based Mental Performance: Plan B

Jake Rauchbach breaks down how players can improve their on-court games with off-court tools during this hiatus

Jake Rauchbach

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For players looking to remain sharp, getting in on-court work right now can prove to be a challenge. Considering the social distancing and lockdown currently in effect, players and teams alike may be forced to look outside the box to employ other sorts of ways to maintain an edge.

Integrated player development tools that touch upon the deeper level of the mind could provide the answer.

With limited skill development time, mental tools that aim to maintain and refine player’s instincts, habits and routines could hold the key to producing improvement during this on-court hiatus.

In this column, we are going to highlight four different ways to train the mind (And Game) to remain sharp.

Visualization

Science has shown that there is a direct connection between thoughts, emotions and the body. This means when players are relegated to primarily off-court activities, there could be no better way to train, than visualization.

Players that I have worked with in the past who have employed visualization, have often produced mirror-like on-court results.

For instance, during my time at Temple University, there was a player who pictured himself stealing the ball in the full court and then going down to dunk the ball. Before visualizing this, he had not completed this play during the game. After doing so, he began to repeatedly complete this play during the games. This is just one example, of how powerful visualization can be, and there are many more. This type of phenomenon has become the new normal for the community of MindRight Pro community players. What we are finding, is there is a direct connection between internal picturing and external outcomes.

This is one of the reasons why, visualization is such a beneficial tool to use, especially when players are not able to get-in adequate court-time. At this point, making this apart of the player’s daily routine should be a no brainer.

Affirmations

Affirmations have long been used as a way to affirm mindset. For players, whose seasons have abruptly come to an end, and where on-court time has been limited, training mindset to stay sharp is VITAL.

Consistent use of affirmations helps players hone their very own personal mission statement. If players can stay on a mission now, they can perceivably do so through any future experience.

Regular check-ins help to keep players on a mission, and headed in the right direction.

Breath Work

Leveraging breath as a way to increase awareness and performance is a pillar of virtually every type of self-help and high-performance modality.

Being aware of one’s breath is very powerful. Breathwork has also long been used as a vehicle to bring people into the present moment. The present moment is where high-performance lives. For players, there may be nothing more important for their game than this.

This is a big-time opportunity for athletes to train on-court performance via present moment awareness. We are talking about training breath as a proxy for improvement.

Ultimately, on-court performance all boils down to present moment awareness. Without a strong handle on this aspect of consciousness, players will hold themselves back from the best version of themselves. For players, training this aspect now could reap big-time rewards when basketball resumes.

Meditation

Of course, we can provide this list without talking about meditation. Meditation is like the anchor for all other mind-based methods. With the increasing number of options for meditation, players should have no problem finding resources in this regard.

This being said, there are a ton of different types of meditation. It does not matter which one a player chooses, the most important thing is that he/she is consistent.

Consistency moves the dial, and that is super important right now. Players who consistently train the mind during their time off the court; Give themselves an edge once they’re cleared to be back on the court in the full.

Check out Jake Rauchbach’s High-Performance Mindfulness podcast here.

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NBA Daily: The Hot Seat – Western Conference

Matt John takes a look at head coaches and general managers in the Western Conference whose jobs might be on the line.

Matt John

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Back on Monday, Basketball Insiders took a look at which personnel from the Eastern Conference could be in danger of losing their jobs. In case you missed it, check it out here.

Previously, we discussed the notion that there’s always one guy you’d never suspect to lose his job to get hit by the Hot Seat – Kenny Atkinson’s mutual parting a few weeks back was just that.

Before we dive into the jobs on the line in the Western Conference, there’s something else that must be pointed out about the Hot Seat. It’s true that when it comes to job performance in the NBA, most of what determines your fate stems from the question: “What have you done for me lately?”

Joe Dumars’ time as the general manager of the Detroit Pistons is a good example of this. Outside of infamously drafting Darko Milicic over Carmelo Anthony in 2003, Dumars had a near-perfect track record after taking over from 2000 to 2006. Following the departure of franchise icon Grant Hill, Dumars did the following:

– Acquire Ben Wallace in a sign-and-trade with Orlando for Hill. Wallace then went on to become one of the best rim protectors of his era and all-time
– Brought in Chauncey Billups on a cheap deal just before Billups became Mr. Big Shot
– Traded Jerry Stackhouse for Richard Hamilton, who became a perfect complement next to Billups in the frontcourt
– Drafted Mehmet Okur, Tayshaun Prince, Amir Johnson and Jason Maxiell, all productive players that were taken after the lottery
– Replaced Rick Carlisle with Larry Brown
– Basically stole Rasheed Wallace mid-season

Naturally, this created a great era of basketball for Detroit. They won a championship, went to two consecutive finals, and went to six consecutive conference finals from 2003-08. Not many can say they were able to win a championship after losing a superstar and failing to draft one when they had the chance, but Dumars can.

But then came the fall of 2008: That bred the awful Billups-for-Iverson deal. Paying top dollar for the ill-fated Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva contracts. Putting together a frontcourt of Josh Smith, Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe. If Dumars didn’t have an incredible run earlier as general manager, how long would he have lasted after putting the team in mediocrity?

Given the massive amount of franchise success to his name, he kept his job long after things nosedived for Detroit. It’s that same sort of success that guarantees leaders like Gregg Popovich and Rick Carlisle will keep their job for as long as they want, even if they are sitting at home when the playoffs start.

The following people are on the hot seat not because they haven’t necessarily experienced success with their team — but because they haven’t had enough to keep their job should they fail in the situation they find themselves in now.

“Figure It Out… And Quickly Now”

Mike D’Antoni — Houston Rockets

D’Antoni has a lot of success both with the Rockets and as an NBA head coach in general. So much so that if he retired right here and now, he’d make a case for the best coach to never win a championship. Even so, the pressure on him to get Houston over the hump is stronger than it’s ever been.

Obviously, going to the small-ball lineup is something D’Antoni has no issue deploying. In fact, he embraces that gameplan. But even this may be too tall of a task for him. In the past, he used perimeter guys to soak up minutes at the power forward and center spots, but he usually had at least one pure big in his rotation. Now he doesn’t.

With Robert Covington and Clint Capela out, the Rockets don’t have any rotation players taller than 6-foot-8. In fact, the only one who’s actually measured at that height is Jeff Green, who was not only cut from Utah mid-season but spent most of the year riding the pine before Houston inquired about his services. Can you really call it small-ball if you have no bigs to begin with?

D’Antoni wouldn’t be here if this experiment was definitively working — they’re in the mix, but certainly not full-on contenders at this moment. For a while there, it looked like it was. Houston won seven of its first eight games, coming with notable wins coming against the Lakers, Boston (twice) and Utah. They then followed it up with a four-game losing streak with losses at the hands of New York, Charlotte and Orlando.

A record of 8-5 honestly isn’t too bad with such a drastic mid-season change, in retrospect. Russell Westbrook was playing some of the best basketball of his career, while James Harden was a little more off than usual. Still, the mixed results were scary given what the Rockets have ahead of them if the playoffs eventually come.

If Houston doesn’t get to the championship round or, at the very least, go further than they did last season, D’Antoni might get the lion’s share of the blame. Either way, D’Antoni’s contract extension talks with owner Tilman Fertitta didn’t go… smoothly either. As bad as that all may sound, with his reputation, he wouldn’t have much trouble finding another job.

“We Cannot Lose Another Franchise Player… We Just Can’t”

Ryan Saunders/Scott Layden – Minnesota Timberwolves

First, some props are due for both Saunders and Layden. In Layden’s case, he should get the credit for stealing Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez away from the Denver Nuggets. Then as a follow-up, he acquired D’Angelo Russell to appease Karl-Anthony Towns and give him the best scoring guard he’s ever had.

For Saunders, he’s integrated them pretty well mid-season. Beasley and Hernangomez are both playing excellent basketball right now for the Timberwolves. Russell is doing his usual thing. Appearances, finally, are on the rise for the talented squad.

Has that changed Minnesota’s fortunes one bit? Nope! Since the Timberwolves made their mid-season roster shakeup, they’ve gone 3-10, which puts them at 19-45, good for second-worst and only ahead of the injury-decimated Golden State Warriors.

It’s numbers like those that make the Wolves’ promising start back in October feel like an eternity ago. It wouldn’t matter if the season resumed or not, the Timberwolves weren’t making the playoffs. Worse, Towns was not happy with the team’s lack of success for most of the season. What Minnesota has to ask themselves is how long will he be willing to put up with such a lack of progress.

Bringing Russell aboard was the smart, obvious, and let’s face it, inevitable move. Pairing your franchise player with his friend has brought his spirits up, but the continued losing might not indefinitely postpone these feelings forever.

The real pressure on Layden and Saunders doesn’t come from only how the Timberwolves do, but how they fare against their competition next year. Excluding the conference’s top seven, their younger competitors — New Orleans, Memphis, Sacramento, Phoenix — are further along in developing their team than Minnesota. Worse, Golden State and Portland are also going to be much healthier next season. Making the playoffs in the Western Conference is going to be quite the mountain to climb, especially for Minnesota.

If they can’t get over that hump, Minnesota will have to do something to keep Towns happy. That might start with getting rid of Layden and Saunders.

This list may be short, but that’s because it’s hard to see other coaches and general managers being put on the hot seat right now. Ether because their seasons have gone well, their seasons have gone badly for reasons that were out of control, or there’s too much loyalty there for anyone to get fired.

The one coach who might eventually be on the hot seat is Quin Snyder. He’s done an excellent job for Utah over these past several years, so his one hiccup shouldn’t be enough to put his job in jeopardy. That’s more of a wait-and-see situation. Even if it doesn’t get better, it took several years for Toronto to dismiss Dwane Casey because he did so much for that organization.

Oklahoma City’s season has gone so surprisingly and enjoyably well that Billy Donovan’s job should be just fine. Some will blame Neil Olshey for what happened to Portland this season, but with all that happened with Jusuf Nurkic and their other injuries, what were his options?

Alvin Gentry would have made this list, but it wasn’t his fault that Zion Williamson missed most of the season. Now that the generational prospect is back, New Orleans has most definitely turned a corner and went 11-8 since his debut. It might be too late both due to the injury bug and COVID-19, but their improvement over the last few months should make Gentry’s job safe for now.

Luke Walton or Vlade Divac would also be prime candidates for this list, but who knows what’s going on in Sacramento’s collective head?

Right now, it looks like a lot more jobs in the Western Conference are safe than not at the moment. That can all change in a short amount of time, but we don’t know anything, really. Here’s to hoping that no one will lose their job in this league – especially at a time like this.

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